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What’s Wrong with Teenagers? (They Don’t Have Any Moral Virtue)

This author explains convincingly that we haven’t been concerned enough with our children’s moral virtue—or acquiring the habits required to flourish as  free and rational animals in a society such as ours. Aristotle, of course, distinguished between moral virtue and intellectual virtue.  Intellectual virtue is acquired through teaching, but it has little to do with the discipline required to choose well: 

In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you’d need as an adult. But you’d do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you’d be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you’d also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely. 

In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too. 

At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake. 

This doesn’t mean that adolescents are stupider than they used to be. In many ways, they are much smarter. An ever longer protected period of immaturity and dependence—a childhood that extends through college—means that young humans can learn more than ever before. There is strong evidence that IQ has increased dramatically as more children spend more time in school, and there is even some evidence that higher IQ is correlated with delayed frontal lobe development.

All that school means that children know more about more different subjects than they ever did in the days of apprenticeships. Becoming a really expert cook doesn’t tell you about the nature of heat or the chemical composition of salt—the sorts of things you learn in school.

But there are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.

Let me emphasize a few points.

There’s now a huge number of years between puberty and living  as a responsible adult.  It used to be, not so long ago, that people got married around puberty, and sex was connected almost immediately with children and parental responsibility.  Now young people have well more than a decade, it seems, in which they’re told to practice safe sex.  You can do what you want, as long as it’s consensual and disconnected from birthing and dying. The virtue of chastity, it seems, can’t possibly be practiced for so long. Safe sex, of course, falls short of moral virtue, because it has little to do with our social natures as pair-bonding and reproducing animals.

In our high tech and individualistic society, children rarely have meaningful chores.  They don’t learn how to cook, because there just isn’t much real cooking at home.  If they do cook now and again, it’s not as a routine and needed contribution to family life. Caregiving used to mainly be for the elderly—grandparents etc.—living at home as part of the family.  But parents today are too busy—both of them with careers and all—to devote themselves much to such voluntary caregiving, and so children are doing even less of it. Children are less likely to really know—much less care for—elderly members of the extended family, although there are typically more of them. They aren’t learning the duties connected with love.  In smaller families, of course, children are also doing a lot less caring for one another—again as a routine and needed contribution to family life.

Our kids saren’t picking up—under expert adult supervision—the skills of family life.  They aren’t, as the author cleverly says, starting that kind of “internship” for life at an early age.

Kids are spending a very long time doing nothing much morally virtuous or of genuine social significance beyond going to school.

The author is surely right that this long period in school allows for more diversity in learning of “subjects.”  That doesn’t mean school is harder than ever.  Nobody believes that.  And school—both high school and college—has surrendered its civilizing function, its inculcation of the principles of moral virtue or decent behavior, its responsibility to help students figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do.  School, in other words, is more merely technical than ever.

So someone might say we should follow the example of the Amish or the Mormons and do what we can to get kids to marry and have their own kids young.  The immediate objections:  That would gets in the way of their education! And it is an offense against their freedom as individuals!

All these generalizations are, of course, exaggerations. They apply most of all to the children of our increasingly meritocratic elite—the bourgeois bohemians.  They apply a lot less to merely middle-class Americans, or to Americans living in the sticks.

At my Berry College, I recently talked to a hyper-admirable young lady who’s working two jobs and earned big scholarships to pay every cent of her college expenses herself.  Not only that, she’s involved as a leader in every facet of college life and does all kinds of charitable stuff.  She’s also close to her five siblings, who do a lot to raise each other.  She has the habits of Aristotle’s morally virtuous person, while being intellectually virtuous too.

But she also reports that she and her brothers and sisters aren’t so interested in having big families themselves.  After all, who wants to be that worried about money all the time?  Do we live in a time when we’ve figured out that virtue depended on necessities that are now so easy to avoid?  Can that be good?


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